Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Withers and Willie Whopper

If you’re of a certain age, when you think of Jane Withers, you think of Josephine the Plumber. Withers played the character on TV commercials starting around February 1963 until, well, they could still be running somewhere for all I know. It was a great concept. The idea of a lady plumber was new and Withers happily chirped the benefits of a cleanser to some clueless homebody. You couldn’t help but like her. She was picked over 102 other actresses, including Ann B. Davis.

Withers had been a star in the movies as a child in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But before that, she had a career as a voice actress in cartoons. Regretfully, voices went uncredited back then so which specific titles Withers appeared in will never be known unless someone asks her about it. And considering it was almost 80 years ago, she might not remember. I can’t help but wonder if she’s Cookie and the baby Elmer in the first Buddy cartoon at Warners, “Buddy’s Day Out” (1933).

She talked about animation a bit in this syndicated newspaper feature dated July 14, 1935. She was nine when she did this interview.

Now That She’s to Be Star Like Shirley, She’ll Reform
By being a very nasty little girl indeed, Jane Withers diverted more comment to herself in “Bright Eyes” than reviewers allotted Shirley Temple, who was not only a very nice little girl but the star of the picture as well. Whereupon Fox—to whom both are under contract—elevated Jane to a stardom like Shirley’s; and now Jane is to be a very nice little girl too.
It is up to future audiences, of course, to decide the wisdom of this move. Not the elevation, perhaps, so much as the reformation. They will have an opportunity to judge with the release, this week, of “Ginger.”
Trifle Disconcerting
Talking to Jane is very likely to deflate an interviewer’s opinion of himself, especially if it happens to be a high one. She is, frankly, way ahead of him. That sense of superiority you get from looking down at someone smaller than yourself doesn’t work with Jane, at all, at all. Not that she’s the least bit nasty, but the mischievous expression on her face, the not-quite-hidden laughter in her eyes, are well, shall we say, a trifle disconcerting?
Jane is, I am afraid, everything we mean when we say, “a born actress.” This is partly because she is a girl, feminine gender, and partly because of her training: after she was born. The training started at the age of two, when her mother took her to a hall in Atlanta so that she could do a negro recitation. Jane got up on the stage and burst into tears. It was the last, the only, time that happened.
Two Years of Broadcasts
At three, Jane won a contest and a part in Aunt Sally’s Kiddie Revue. Pretty soon she was broadcasting over WGST, doing songs, imitations and tap dances. This went on for two years. At five Jane was a veteran performer, with Hollywood the next stop. (Hollywood seemed logical because Jane had done practically every thing else.)
She came out three years ago with her mother. Mr. Walter Withers stayed behind; it was all right for Ruth and the kid to go, but he had a prosperous tire business to look after. After they got settled and Ruth was in the movies—time enough, then, to think about coming on. Jane said good-by to the college football team of which she was the mascot, sang “I’m a Rambling Wreck From Georgia Tech,” her radio theme song, on the closing program and scrambled aboard a through train with Mrs. Withers.
Didn’t Get a Tumble
There was nobody to welcome them in Los Angeles. They pestered casting directors for eight months, and never a tumble did they get. But the radio was still left. Here Jane had better luck. She was selected from several hundred youngsters to exemplify the “Nuisance” on KFWB’s weekly Juvenile Revue. This led to her being hired by the animated cartoon people to dub in the voices of the little drawn figures. She did six months of Looney Tunes, and also Willie Whoppers, sometimes imitating as many as four voices in a single reel.
Simultaneously things began to break with the studios.. Jane played small roles in "Kid Millions,” “Hollywood on Parade,” “The Good Fairy” and “It’s a Gift.” Her first Fox picture was “Handle With Care,” with James Dunn. David Butler directed. When Butler was preparing “Bright Eyes,” Casting Director James Ryan saw Jane do some of her impersonations. He rushed her to Butler, made her repeat them. That settled it. .
Like Mitzi Green five years ago, Jane is a natural mimic. She can do 37 imitations now, and the list is growing. She needed no encouragement to do Zasu Pitts, Garbo and Shirley Temple for me. As Shirley, she shrewdly stressed the cherubic smile at the end of each sentence. In “Meal Ticket,” now in production, she will perform a take-off on Harry Lauder.
The down-south accent persists with both Jane and her mother. Jane can affect other accents—French, German, Jewish. She lives quite like the rest of the children on the block, as Mrs. Withers is fond of telling you, plays marbles, skates, rides, swims and climbs fences. The only reason she hated being nasty in “Bright Eyes” was because “Shirley is so nice.” Otherwise it was fun.
Sol Wurtzel has presented Jane with a new suite of rooms (she calls it her “bungalow”) with sliding closet doors. When Jane saw the doors she cried, “Goodie! I can play elevator.” The news that “Ginger” was to be previewed elicited a “Goodie, mother! What’s the other picture?” Once a week, on Saturday night, Jane and her friends hold debates. “Debates?” I repeated. “On what?” “Oh,” Jane said, “on airplanes, the President, other Presidents — everything.” The parents act as judges.
Set of Rules
Jane abides by her own set of “rules.” Some of them:
Drink at least one glass of buttermilk daily.
“Never talk when others are talking.”
Never say, “I can’t.”
Be thankful for everything you have.
Help mother and everyone as much as possible.
Her motto is, “Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well.”

While her “rules” may sound a little precocious, there’s no doubt Withers followed them (well, maybe not the one about the buttermilk). Interviews show her as a thankful, devout lady. And anyone who has seen her films and commercials has to admit that whatever she did, she did well.

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